The area we know as King's Cross gets its name from a long-lost memorial to George IV. And everybody HATED it.
This is the original King's Cross, a towering folly topped with a statue of the fourth George. It was built in 1830 (with the statue added in 1835) as part of a road improvement scheme. It lasted only until 1845:
Before the memorial arrived, the area had been known as Battle Bridge — supposedly in reference to the battle between Boudicca and the Romans which, by tradition if not fact, took place nearby. The octagonal folly lasted only 15 years, but the area was forever after known as King's Cross.
It's an impressive legacy for a structure that was reviled during its brief lifespan.
Why we almost had a St George's Cross station
It all started so positively. In January 1830, it was announced that: "The inhabitants of Battle-bridge intend erecting, by subscription, a splendid obelisk where the old toll-house stood, to be called St-George's Cross, for the purpose of improving the neighbourhood and removing the danger which the public are exposed to in crossing the seven roads that unite at this spot" (1).
It seems that even 200 years ago, that junction was a hazard for pedestrians.
The new obelisk was to be topped by a sculpture of St George slaying the dragon. It was intended that the area would henceforth be known as St George's Cross, rather than the ancient name of Battle Bridge. This, as you'll no doubt have noticed, did not happen.
In fact, the area had been after a rebrand for some time. The Battle Bridge name was not the most pleasant, and had a bad reputation. The wealthier freeholders had been searching for a new identity anyway. One faction favoured the St George dedication, while another proposed 'Boadicea's Cross'.
Eventually the biggest freeholder and ardent monarchist, William Forrester Bray, won the battle to rebadge Battle Bridge. The dracophobic saint and Celtic war-queen were ousted in favour of His Majesty King George IV. The monument would be dedicated to his reign, while the wider area would now be rebranded as King's Cross. Contrary to some accounts, the corpulent king was still alive when Bray's marketing spiel hit the press, though he would die a few weeks later (2).
The name King's Cross quickly took hold. Some 20 years later, it was established enough to become the name of the new rail terminus, built a few paces away from the statue site. Had fate played out a little differently, we might today be catching trains from St George's Cross station (or even London Boadicea), rather than King's Cross. We can thank the little known figure of William Bray for the coinage.
But every new development needs its token public art, and King's Cross was to get a real humdinger.
A much-hated statue
The new landmark proved an immediate flop with Londoners, and particularly the sniffy press. The 3.4 metre-tall statue in particular came in for fierce criticism. It was cheaply made, from brick, mortar and a stone-like coating. The late king was apparently shaped on the spot in just a few days by architect Stephen Geary and his team, rather than in an artist's studio (3).
Others despised it simply because of its subject. George IV, a bloated, vain, drain on the public purse, was not among the more popular British monarchs. His statue was a magnet for sideswipe and ridicule. Here are just a few of the quotes trashing the faux-monarch.
- "A frightful staring effigy... executed in a style of grotesque vulgarity beyond anything I have caught a glimpse of in a waxwork or hairdresser's window." - Morning Post, 25 Sept 1835
- "It is not worthy to be called a statue." - Morning Post, 15 Sept 1838
- "A ridiculous octagonal structure crowned by an absurd statue." - Walter Thornbury
- "...a very uncomplimentary effigy of majesty; even the very cabmen grew critical; the watermen jeered; the omnibus drivers ridiculed royalty in so parlous a state; at length the statue was removed in toto, or rather in piecemeal." - Illustrated London News, 15 Feb 1845
As it happened, George's statue crowned the obelisk for just seven years, before it was pulled down in 1842. Its shoddy construction suggests that it probably returned to rubble, of which no trace survives. Yet one tantalising hint from a newspaper cutting of 1888 suggests some of the bits were sold on: "It is said that the nose of this regal statue had for its base an earthen draining tile, and that it was offered to a gentleman for 6d!" (4).
A lasting legacy
The octagonal base survived two further years after the statue was removed. It served variously as a police station, beer shop and advertising space. When it was pulled down in 1845, few people mourned. Newspaper accounts of the removal were scarce and short.
But the name of King's Cross lived on, especially after the railway station was established in the next decade. From a shortlived and hated monument, London had gained one of its most famous place names.
And finally... a bit of speculation
The monument to George IV stood on that busy junction in front of the building known as the Lighthouse Block. That building has long been the subject of speculation, for nobody knows why the strange turret was added. The leading suggestion is that it was part of the nautical branding for an old oyster house on the site. But might it have been a subtle nod to the original King's Cross monument? It's really quite persuasive when you see them side by side.
(1) Baldwin's Weekly London Journal, 16 Jan 1830.
(2) Morning Post, 21 May 1830.
(3) Morning Post, 25 Sept 1835. (This source devotes thousands of words to dissing the statue, and is an hilarious read for anyone who enjoys reading bad reviews.)
(4) Witney Gazette, 19 May 1888.